Special Report

Weighing States’ School Performance, Policymaking

By Amy M. Hightower — January 05, 2011 11 min read
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At a time of persistent turbulence for America’s economy and schools, Quality Counts has continued its long-standing mission of regularly evaluating the status of states’ educational performance and policymaking. This 15th edition of Education Week’s annual report issues summative scores and letter grades to the states and features newly updated analysis from the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center in four of the six areas tracked in the report: the Chance-for-Success Index, the K-12 Achievement Index, school finance, and policies related to transitions and alignment across stages of education.

To complement Quality Counts 2011’s journalistic focus on the interconnections between the larger economy and education, the EPE Research Center fielded an original survey to assess the state of public education finances and explore reactions to the Great Recession by school systems nationwide.

Key findings from this special 50-state survey appear elsewhere in the report. The overall findings of that investigation point to relatively few large-scale education policy changes at the state level that can be attributed directly to the economic downturn, which officially began in December 2007 and ended in June 2009. We find, however, that many states have enacted some more-modest policy modifications that provide local school systems with greater flexibility to meet the challenges posed by the financial crisis. For example, since the recession began, 21 states have broadened the eligible uses of education funds that had previously been reserved for spending on particular programs or groups of students. In a similar vein, 10 states have loosened their regulations on the length of the school year, week, or day.

Those policy adjustments generally represented quick fixes at the margins, and were often paired with budget cuts and other fiscal responses. By and large, they were not fundamental structural reforms. A more extensive portrait of this policy activity, as well as an update on states’ core school finance policies, can be found in the EPE Research Center’s online-only State Highlights Reports.

Overall Grades

Data Download
Chance for Success PDF
K-12 Achievement PDF
School Finance PDF
Transitions and Alignment PDF

Each year, Quality Counts provides new results for a portion of the policy-and-performance areas that constitute the framework for the report’s State of the States analysis. The 2011 edition presents updated scores and letter grades in four critical areas, for the states and the nation as a whole. The Chance for Success, K-12 Achievement, and School Finance grades, respectively, capture significant aspects of the broader educational environment, school performance, and the level and equitability of school funding. The fourth updated category focuses on policies related to transitions and alignment across the various segments of the educational pipeline. The grades are based on more than 50 indicators from original survey data and analysis by the EPE Research Center.

Nation Earns a C for Education Policy and Performance

The nation receives a C when graded across the six distinct areas of policy and performance tracked by Quality Counts. For the third year in a row, Maryland ranks first in the nation, earning a B-plus, and posting a total score of 87.6 points. New York ranks second and Massachusetts third, each earning a grade of B. Most states fall between a C-plus and a C-minus in the grading. Two states and the District of Columbia received a D-plus, the lowest grades awarded.

1. Maryland B+ (87.6)
2. New York B (84.7)
3. Massachusetts B (82.6)
4. Virginia B- (81.8)
5. Florida B- (81.5)
6. Arkansas B- (81.4)
7. New Jersey B- (80.7)
8. Georgia B- (80.5)
9. Pennsylvania B- (80.1)
10. West Virginia B- (79.9)
11. Ohio B- (79.8)
12. Vermont B- (79.7)
13. Texas C+ (78.8)
14. Indiana C+ (78.6)
15. South Carolina C+ (78.3)
16. Connecticut C+ (78.3)
17. Oklahoma C+ (78.1)
18. Wisconsin C+ (77.8)
19. North Carolina C+ (77.8)
20. Hawaii C+ (77.6)
21. Louisiana C+ (77.6)
22. Delaware C+ (77.5)
23. Tennessee C+ (77.4)
24. Michigan C+ (77.2)
25. Alabama C+ (76.8)
26. Iowa C+ (76.7)
27. Maine C+ (76.6)
28. New Hampshire C (76.3)
29. Wyoming C (76.3)
30. California C (76.2)
31. Rhode Island C (75.7)
32. New Mexico C (75.7)
33. Washington C (75.4)
34. Kentucky C (75.2)
35. North Dakota C (74.9)
36. Minnesota C (74.6)
37. Kansas C (74.4)
38. Missouri C (73.9)
39. Colorado C (73.7)
40. Illinois C (73.0)
41. Utah C- (72.4)
42. Arizona C- (71.5)
43. Oregon C- (71.5)
44. Idaho C- (71.2)
45. Nevada C- (70.7)
46. Alaska C- (70.7)
47. Montana C- (70.4)
48. Mississippi C- (70.0)
49. South Dakota D+ (69.2)
50. District of Columbia D+ (69.1)
51. Nebraska D+ (68.6)

Note: States are ranked based on unrounded scores.

SOURCE: EPE Research Center, 2011

In this year’s report, readers will also find overall, summative letter grades and scores for the nation and the individual states. These grades incorporate the most recent information available from all six categories that make up Quality Counts’ full policy-and-performance framework. Results for the teaching profession and the standards, assessments, and accountability sections are drawn from last year’s report. Each category carries equal weight when calculating the summative scores.

For the third year in a row, Maryland is the top-ranked state, earning the nation’s highest overall grade, a B-plus. Massachusetts and New York follow close behind, each receiving a B. At the other end of the rankings, the District of Columbia, Nebraska, and South Dakota received grades of D-plus. A majority of states fell somewhere in the middle of the grading curve, with 36 states earning grades between a C-minus and a C-plus. The nation overall earned a C, the same grade as last year.

Chance for Success

The Chance-for-Success Index provides a unique perspective on the link between education and beneficial outcomes at each stage of a person’s life. As in past years, the index combines information from 13 indicators that span childhood through adulthood to capture three broad life stages: the early-childhood years, participation and performance in formal education, and educational attainment and workforce outcomes during adulthood.

The grading for this section follows a “best in class” approach, in which each state’s performance on a given criterion is evaluated relative to the nation’s top-ranked state on that same indicator. The leading state is awarded 100 points for the indicator; other states receive points in proportion to their performance as benchmarked against the national leader.

Massachusetts earned the only A in Chance for Success and remains at the top of the national rankings for the fourth year running. Connecticut, New Hampshire, and New Jersey each received an A-minus. These states have collectively been the nation’s top scorers since 2008. By contrast, two states—Nevada and New Mexico—received grades of D and D-plus, respectively, placing their results on a par with past performance. The nation as a whole earned a C-plus in this category. Thirteen states experienced some increase or decrease in their letter grades since last year’s report; the changes were generally modest, however.

We continue to find that factors associated with participation and performance in formal schooling, which account for the largest share of indicators in this category, are the driving force behind state rankings. States differ somewhat in the opportunities for children to acquire a solid foundation during the early years and for job prospects in adulthood. However, delivering on the promise of elementary and secondary education and access to postsecondary schooling tends to be more influential in shaping residents’ opportunities.

K-12 Achievement

The K-12 Achievement Index evaluates how well a state’s students perform compared with those in the top-ranked state on 18 separate criteria. Last updated for Quality Counts 2008, the index takes into account three performance-based categories: current state performance, improvements over time, and equity as measured by poverty-based achievement gaps. Each of these achievement outcomes is measured in terms of both current performance levels and changes over time.

The top-achieving state this year is Massachusetts, which earned a grade of B, followed closely by Maryland and New Jersey, each with a B-minus. Scores for the three states fall within about 3 points of one another. These states were also the nation’s top performers in 2008. At the other end of the achievement continuum, four states—Louisiana, Mississippi, New Mexico, and West Virginia—and the District of Columbia received grades of F on the K-12 Achievement Index.

The average grade for the nation is a D-plus, marking little change since 2008. About two-thirds of the states posted increases or decreases in their grades from 2008 to 2011. Nearly all of these shifts were quite minor, on the order of half a letter grade. States generally fared somewhat better on outcomes related to improvements over time and achievement equity than they did in the overall current performance category. Detailed subcategory scores and grades can be found online in this year’s State Highlights Reports.

No state consistently demonstrates excellence across all three elements of the K-12 Achievement Index. That is, no state earned at least a B on each of the achievement dimensions: status, change, and equity. Most of the top-ranked states fared well on current levels of achievement and improvements over time, but rather poorly on equity. Massachusetts, for example, finished first on current achievement and second on gains over time, but fell to 37th place when evaluated on achievement disparities between poor and nonpoor students. By contrast, Florida, which finished sixth in the nation overall, ranked 24th for current achievement, but emerged as one of the top states on both improvements and equity.

Transitions and Alignment

Last updated for Quality Counts 2009, this section tracks state efforts to better coordinate the connections between K-12 schooling and other segments of the educational pipeline, with a particular focus on three stages: early-childhood education, college readiness, and links to the world of work.

In Transitions and Alignment, we track activity around a set of 14 individual policies, each of which factors equally into a state’s grade for the section. A state’s final score reflects the number of focal policies it has implemented. A state that has, in theory, enacted all 14 polices would receive the full credit of 100 points. In reality, no state has yet earned that perfect score.

For 2011, the average grade for Transitions and Alignment is a C-plus. Five states—Arkansas, Maryland, Tennessee, Texas, and West Virginia—received an A for their policy work in this area. Most states have enacted at least eight of the 14 policies tracked in this year’s report, with 13 having 10 or more in place. But not all states have pursued transitions-and-alignment policymaking with enthusiasm. Montana and South Dakota, for instance, have put just three such policies in place, and Nebraska only two.

Few changes are evident in policies targeting linkages to early education since 2009. But we do see significant movement further along the pipeline, related to establishing college-readiness policies to help prepare high school graduates for the rigors of postsecondary education.

As of this year, 33 states have defined college readiness, marking a dramatic 13-state increase since 2009. This surge is not surprising in light of two influential efforts that have emerged during the intervening period, both of which encourage college preparedness and enrollment: the Common Core State Standards Initiative and the federal Race to the Top program. All high school students must now take a college-preparatory curriculum to earn a high school diploma in 10 states, compared with just three in 2009. North Carolina showed the greatest improvement on Transitions and Alignment, with its grade climbing from a D-plus in 2009 to a B in 2011. This rise was propelled, in large part, by strong gains in college-readiness policy, as well as in linkages to the economy and workforce.

Overall, state efforts to connect education and workforce preparation remain the most mature of the areas examined in this section of Quality Counts. Twenty-four states have implemented all four of the economy-and-workforce policies tracked in this year’s survey. Notably, all but three states—Montana, Nebraska, and North Dakota—have established pathways by which high school students can earn credits that will transfer to the state’s postsecondary education system.

School Finance

The final section of the State of the States update investigates school finance. The eight indicators on which states are graded encompass two crucial dimensions of education finance: school spending patterns and the distribution of resources within a state. When gauging expenditure patterns, the EPE Research Center does not consider raw dollars spent. Rather it evaluates educational spending relative to some relevant criterion or benchmark, such as regionally varying differences in costs, the nationwide level of per-pupil spending, or the total size of a state’s budget. Like Chance for Success and K-12 Achievement, school finance grades are calculated using a best-in-class rubric.

For 2011, the nation as a whole earns a C for School Finance, holding steady from the 2010 report. The grades in this category tend to be tightly clustered, with half of the states scoring in the C-minus to C-plus range.

Again this year, Wyoming leads the nation with an A-minus. Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island round out the top five, followed by Maryland, each of which earns a B-plus. Five states—Idaho, Mississippi, Nevada, Tennessee, and Utah—receive grades of D or D-minus.

Finance grades are not issued for Hawaii and the District of Columbia. Because they are single-district jurisdictions, it is not possible to calculate scores for equity indicators, which deal with the distribution of funds across multiple school districts.

The research center’s equity analysis continues to find wide disparities in funding patterns across districts in many states. For example, the Restricted Range indicator, which reports the difference in per-pupil spending levels for districts at the 95th and 5th expenditure percentiles, finds a gap of $11,500 in Alaska, the largest in the nation. At the other end of the spectrum, about $1,600 separates high- and low-spending school systems in Utah. And seven states fund property-poor districts at equal or higher levels than they fund wealthier systems, according to the Wealth Neutrality Score.

Despite significant disparities, states tend to fare relatively better on the equity measures examined in Quality Counts 2011 than on the spending indicators, owing in large part to the dramatic divides that separate the states that devote the most and the least resources to education. Few states rank at the top or bottom of the nation for both aspects of finance; and several post especially mixed performances. Utah, for example, ranks second in the nation if the equity indicators are taken together, but last on spending. Conversely, Vermont ranks near the bottom (48th) for the equitability of its school funding, but leads the nation on education spending.


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